All things Russian are the flavour of the month in Sydney at the moment. Last night, the Sydney Symphony Orchestra under chief conductor Vladimir Ashkenazy embarked upon a mini-series of three Russian concerts to end the year. Recently returned from their highly successful tour of China, the orchestra was in sparkling form and played with freshness and vitality all evening.

The first half of the concert consisted of Rachmaninov’s Piano Concerto no. 4 in its original version. In fact, this was the first time this version has been performed in Australia. The composer’s original version received its world première in 1927, but it is a much later version – from 1941 – which is most commonly heard in concert halls today. Although not as popular as Rachmaninov’s Second or Third Piano Concertos, there is much to enjoy in this work. It contains drama, soaring Romantic melodies as well as a rich harmonic vocabulary, which makes this a work of real substance. It has been somewhat championed by Scott Davie, the evening’s soloist, who had made the work the subject of his postgraduate study in 2001. Davie coped admirably with the technical demands of this work, navigating his way through the copious numbers of virtuosic passages with aplomb. In the slow movement, he was able to draw out a satisfyingly rich tone from the piano. However, although a very good and technically excellent performance, it did not excite. The orchestra, for their part, played with a lot of passion, particularly the string section, which played the long, soaring melodies with a great sense of space.

The second half of the evening consisted of Tchaikovsky’s epic Manfred Symphony. This is a work composed between his Fourth and Fifth Symphonies, and is the composer’s best example of a programmatic work. Its genesis is interesting: it was written at the request of nationalist composer Balakirev, who passed on a program written by the critic Stasov. However, Tchaikovsky was not the first composer to be approached with the idea. Berlioz was asked to write a symphony on the idea, but he was an old and dying man, so the request was given to Tchaikovsky, who accepted the idea. The influence of Berlioz is still evident in this great work. Manfred is depicted as an outsider, just like the solo viola in Berlioz’s Harold in Italy is an observer to the events unfolding. Berlioz’s concept of the idée fixe, employed in his Symphonie Fantastique, is present in all the movements.

Requiring a large orchestra including a considerable percussion section, two harps and an organ, this is a symphony on a large scale, and a test for any orchestra. The Sydney Symphony Orchestra were expertly guided through the twists and turns of this extraordinary symphony by Ashkenazy. The outer two movements were given the required amount of space and depth, both of them underpinned at their climaxes by a thrilling, full brass sound, cutting through the texture with a sharpness which sent a chill down the spine, depicting the despair and revulsion of Manfred. By contrast, the two lighter central movements were playing with an appropriate delicacy, evoking the more idealistic alpine scenery. There was some delightfully shimmering playing from the violins at the conclusion of the Scherzo, with concertmaster Dene Olding leading the way with an immaculately played violin solo. The Andante showcased the woodwind section, which played with a great sense of alpine freedom, but at the same time with impressive control and phrasing. This was an evening of difficult orchestral music, which firmly shone the spotlight on Vladimir Ashkenazy and his extremely talented orchestra.